Controversy is heating up on what caused the F-15K fighter to crash during a night training mission off the shore of Pohang, Gyeongbuk Province. The debated three main causes are the pilot error caused by vertigo effect, technical defects in the aircraft or a blunder in maintenance.
Although two days have passed since the accident, the black box that contains on-flight records, which will provide key clues to the cause of the crash, has not been recovered, raising forecasts that the debate will only grow.
According to the Air Force, the late Lieutenant Colonel Kim Sung-dae, who was onboard the crashed F-15K, left a radio message in a calm voice right before the crash, Knock it off. It is reported that the fighter jet descended into the sea after radioing this message.
Pilots say that Knock it off is a term used by fighter pilots to tell fellow pilots and the ground control tower that the current mission is over and that the plane will pass on to the next mission, or something abnormal occurred to interrupt the training.
Considering that Lt. Col. Kim communicated in a calm voice, the Air Force is putting slim weight on the possibility that the fighter, under the vertigo effect, might crash into the sea in the process of circling to the next mission. Nevertheless, doubts are being raised because the chances of two veteran pilots being affected by the vertigo effect are very slim.
As for mechanical defects of the aircraft, there could be an engine malfunction or a pilot control system defect. In other words, the fighter fitted with General Electric engines, the first time for F-15 fighters, might have exploded in midair due to engine problems.
However, Air Force Public Information Chief Tak Hyo-soo ruled out that possibility, saying, At the time there were other pilots flying around the fighter jet, and when looking at the flight record of the crashed jet, a midair explosion is clearly far from the truth.
On the other hand, experts point out that if the aircraft turns too suddenly due to pilot system error, the massive acceleration of gravity can leave the pilot unconscious and the plane can crash with no one in control.
Some also point to the possibility of maintenance problems since there is not a translated version of the immense F-15K maintenance manual.
Whatever the cause of the accident, the Air Force is concerned about the repercussions.
If the cause points to internal defects, the Air Force will be reimbursed by the aircrafts manufacturer, but the F-X project seeking to import 36 F-15Ks until 2008, including 14 within this year, will receive a critical blow, and future plans to strengthen air power will inevitably be setback.
On the other hand, if pilots vertigo effect is blamed as the cause without retrieving the critical black box, which holds possible answers to the accident, not only will the Air Force face opposition from the family members of the deceased pilots, but questions might be raised on the credibility of the investigation results.